a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

Month: March, 2013

What Did He Look Like Really?

x200_1393_p0007672_001Entry 5 March 24, 2013. I had never heard of St. Louis of Toulouse until I saw the Louvre painting of him, from ca. 1450, by Antonio Vivarini (ca. 1415-1476). The acquaintance wasn’t very inspiring at first. In my notes for the day, I wrote very little: “I don’t know who St. Louis of Toulouse is, and I’m not going to go after that information this morning, but the way that St. Louis is dressed, he is likely a bishop. I wonder whether the fact that his mitre looks too big for him means that the painter wanted to emphasize that Louis was very young when he was raised to the rank of bishop. The painting is, like a couple of others I’ve seen so far, a portrait going to the waist. His clothing is very elaborately detailed, as if it’s the glory of the appointment that really interests the painter. The depiction of his face is sensitive and detailed.”

Not long after, I was reminded of St. Louis because I found a painting by another Vivarini, Bartolomeo (ca. 1430-1491). I was curious enough to look beyond what I could find in the Louvre book and on the museum website; it was easy to determine from other online sources that Bartolomeo was Antonio’s brother. I went back to look at Antonio’s picture and was struck by the small figures of saints on St. Louis’s stole, which made me decide to look him up too. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Louis (1274-1297) was the son of the king of Naples and nephew of the king of France. He and two of his two brothers were sent to Aragon, a medieval kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, as hostages to gain the release of their father, captured in battle, when Louis was 14. He spent seven years there and was educated by Franciscan friars. Returning to Naples in 1295, Louis renounced his right to the Naples throne and became a Franciscan friar in 1296. Soon after he was named the bishop of Toulouse, but less than a year after he died of a fever. He was celebrated for his service to the poor and canonized in 1317. What a great story. I feel a novel coming on.

I also learned from reading the Catholic Encyclopedia article and from seeing other paintings of St. Louis, including another in the Louvre by Moretto (ca. 1498-1544), in which Louis is paired with another Franciscan, St. Bernardino of Siena, that the Vivarini image contains some of the typical elements that appear in portrayals of St. Louis. After my first examination of the painting by Vivarini, though, I had thought the saint was wearing bishop’s robes, whereas the Catholic Encyclopedia says that the saint is typical depicted in in “pontifical garments and holding a book and a crozier.” Vivarini shows St. Louis holding both a book and a crozier, the ceremonial staff traditionally carried by a bishop.

Moretto’s image has all these same elements, although here St. Louis’s book is open, as if he is reading from it. Moretto’s Louis also looks older than in the Vivarini image, but there is an emphasis on the grandeur on the saint’s clothing and signs of authority similar to what I noticed in Vivarini. But Moretto also is clearly intent on giving the saints a similar stance and expression: both men are tall and serious, and a very similar, slight turn of the head toward the right shoulder is used for both.

The two images together make me wonder which of them looks more like St. Louis. Was Moretto’s St. Louis, from ca. 1520, created in some way on the basis of previous images, including Vivarini’s, because the painter wanted to achieve an authentic likeness?

So much to think about. I was interested to discover one way in which, even before seeing the painting, I had known St. Louis’s name: he is the bishop-saint for whom California’s San Luis Obispo was named by Franciscan missionaries.

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The Subject Is Francis

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Entry 4 March 20, 2013. My last post was about Cimabue and his painting of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus surrounded by angels. This week I’m going to write about his pupil, Giotto (1265-1337), described by the Louvre book as one of the founders of the Italian Renaissance and the artist whom Dante identifies in the Purgatorio as eclipsing his teacher’s reputation. Giotto is an exception to my provisional rule for the blog that I must write only about artists with one painting in the Louvre’s collection; two of Giotto’s works are there, a painting of the Crucifixion from ca. 1330 and a panel that combines four vignettes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), dating from ca. 1295-1300. The Louvre book places great emphasis on the St. Francis panel; a sign of this emphasis is that three of four large reproductions of sections of the panel are accompanied by commentaries. The panel contains a large image of Francis kneeling before a vision of Christ on the cross and receiving a miraculous sign of holiness: the stigmata, that is, marks on his hands, feet and side that mirrors the wounds on Christ’s body. The three small images arranged along the bottom of the panel depict other events from Francis’s life: Pope Innocent III’s dream that determined him to grant Francis’s followers the status of an official religious order, the Order of Friars Minor; the official ceremony in which the pope announced his decision; and a much less formal portrayal of Francis’s work and spirituality, with Francis, revered by many today for his love of nature, preaching to a flock of birds.

The commentaries in the Louvre book emphasize qualities of imagery—naturalistic depictions of objects, individualized portraits of many bird species, beginnings of perspective—as Giotto’s contribution to Western art. There is less said about Giotto as a practitioner of medieval painting techniques or as a transmitter of Christian teaching. Even Francis is presented as something of a pioneer against a conservative church: it takes a miracle for Innocent III to decide to allow the Franciscan Order to be formed. The editors seem to me too eager to identify Giotto’s technique with the qualities they associate with the Renaissance. In pages 12 through 28, the Louvre book presents works from the 13th and 14th centuries, that is, the period bridging the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy; every painting on these pages has a religious subject. In most instances, the paintings present scenes from the life of Christ, particularly his birth, his death on the cross, and, as in Cimabue, the Virgin and Child in glory.

Francis is a notable subject in that he appears more than once in these pages, both in images like Giotto’s in which Francis’s own life story is depicted and in others in which he is one of a group of saints, or saints and donors, who are included in scenes centering on an event from Christ’s life, such as the crucifixion. Francis died only 29 years, one generation, before the birth of Giotto, and his canonization as a Christian saint came in 1228, that is, 27 years before Giotto’s birth. His appearance in the paintings could represent that advances in painting craft are not exclusively secular in origin but also reflect a desire to demonstrate the living presence of Christianity in the artist’s own time.

Giotto himself is depicted in another work from the Louvre’s collection entitled Five Masters of the Florentine Renaissance, ca. 1500, attributed to an Anonymous Florentine Painter of the late 15th or early 16th century. Of the five artists depicted, only two—Giotto and Paolo Uccello—are represented in the Louvre’s collection. Giotto is the first of the five; he is clean-shaven and wearing a headdress that reminds me of one I have seen in portraits of Dante.

Although the Louvre book presents no information along with the painting—this is the first work from the book I have commented on that is not accompanied by a commentary, there is a small amount of information on the painting on the Louvre’s website, in what is called the Atlas Database of artists, the source I am using for reproductions of the paintings I write about. The Database says that the anonymous artist might have had earlier portraits to work from. After centuries in which there was no reasonable expectation that art contained accurate images of historical characters and events, Giotto as artist and as subject is linked clearly to an awakening interest in delivering accuracy. Even here, though, I don’t see this as necessarily due to a secular impulse only. After all, one way in which artists were already including images from life in their paintings was in the practice of including in devotional images portraits of the donors who commissioned the images for private use or for display in church buildings.  

Cimabue and the Eclipse of the Painter

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Entry 3 March 11, 2013. Of the 168 painters I have looked at so far, 104, or not quite 62% of them, are represented in the collection by only one picture. The reproductions of their single works vary in size considerably, but most are no larger than three inches by three inches, and some are less than two inches by two inches. The information provided is typical of the documentation that accompanies paintings in a gallery: name of painter, with life dates, name of painting, with date of composition, dimensions, materials, location in the museum, and inventory number.

When the painting itself and these statistics are all I have to go on, I often find something about the image I want to mention, but I also often feel the same frustration I feel when looking at a painting in a gallery. I want to know more and, more important, have a method for storing the information for future use. I am grateful when a gallery provides me with further details about the works presented, whether in the form of brief commentaries on individual paintings or a convenient catalogue of an exhibit. The Louvre book contains brief commentaries, usually 200-300 words, but for only 400 of the 3,022 works.

Most of the commentaries are accompanied by images that are substantially larger than three inches by three inches; for example, the Mona Lisa gets a whole page in the book, and the image is 10.5 inches by 7.25 inches. In addition, an artist whose work gets a commentary is often, although not always, represented in the Louvre book by more than one painting, and sometimes more than one of these is accompanied by a commentary. The larger reproductions and the multiple commentaries are helpful, but even with them I find myself inclined to pass over an artist represented in this way in favor of writing about a single work that is presented without such accompaniment. It’s due in part to rooting for the underdog, but I also feel, even with all the help the book offers, that what I have to say about a well-known artist’s work will add little to what is widely available. For the one-painting artists, on the other hand, I have more of a chance to add to a viewer’s knowledge.

The very first one-painting artist I looked at, and I have chosen to write about here, is Cimabue (Cenni di Pepe, active 1271-1320), whose painting Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (circa 1280) is the first work presented in the Italian section of the book, which after a brief introduction to the section as a whole presents each of the Louvre’s paintings from Italian artists in chronological order by artist life dates. Cimabue is not only the earliest Italian painter but also the earliest painter by life date in the Louvre; by comparison, the largest section, the French, begins with a painter known only as the French Painter, from the mid-14th century, half a century, therefore, after Cimabue. The Spanish section begins with the Master of St. Ildefonso from the late 15th century, as does the Northern section.

In Cimabue’s painting, the Christ Child and his mother, the Virgin Mary, are seated on a massive golden throne supported by angels. Unlike most single paintings, this one is presented in a large format and accompanied by a commentary, which emphasizes that Cimabue’s work combines elements of the Middle Ages just ending and the Renaissance about to begin. Medieval features noted include the gold background, in the style of a Byzantine icon, and the placement of the angels, which are lined up as parallel two-dimensional front-facing images rather than placed within a three-dimensional space; new techniques are at work, according to the commentary, in the humanized gestures and expressions of the figures, particularly Mary and the Christ Child.

In Dante’s Purgatorio (XI.94-96, translation Mark Musa), Cimabue is mentioned as one who “thought to hold the field/as painter; Giotto now is all the rage,/dimming the luster of the other’s fame.” In the Louvre, too, he must cede the stage at once to Giotto, whose panel containing four scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi is the next painting in the book’s Italian section.

Choosing Where to Start

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Entry 2 March 3, 2013. Having announced the project in the first entry, I wondered where to go next. Since I’ve already looked at 344 paintings from 164 artists, it seems hopeless to think that I’m going to blog about every one of them. Should I start with what I’m looking at now, which is Giulio Cesare Amidano’s Christ Carried to the Tomb? Should I start with the Mona Lisa, which is not only the Louvre’s most famous painting but also the cover art for the book and, therefore, of necessity, the very first painting the book offered for examination? Should I start with the very first painting I examined for this project, back on August 19, 2012, Portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, from 1701?

I’ve decided to say something here, as I did on that very first day, about Rigaud and the difficulty I had in choosing his work. The first candidate I considered was the Mona Lisa, a detail of which appears on the book’s cover. Although the book omits to identify the painting in connection with the cover—apparently we are all expected to know it, the Mona Lisa is reproduced in its entirety, along with a brief commentary and the five other Leonardo paintings in the Louvre’s collection, in the book’s Italian section, which like the other three sections—the French, the Northern and the Spanish, is organized chronologically.

I thought of making my first painting the very first to appear in the first section in the book, the Italian, and then proceeding in order through each section, but I also considered going by size, from the French section, which is the largest at over 200 pages, through to the Spanish, which is 50 pages, and also by life dates, no matter what the artist’s nationality, so that I could observe the evolution of art across Europe from medieval to mid-19th century, which is the end point of the Louvre’s coverage.

Ultimately, I started my daily examination with the illustrations that appeared in the book’s preface, of which Rigaud’s portrait of King Louis XIV is the first. As with the Mona Lisa, the painting is reproduced within the French section, accompanied by a brief commentary. It can also be accessed in the museum’s online collection through an accompanying DVD.

The picture itself isn’t terribly interesting to me despite my love of Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers trilogy, in which Louis XIV appears as a beleaguered boy king in Twenty Years After and a powerful, dangerous adult king in The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the final volume of which is also printed separately under the title, The Man in the Iron Mask. It’s a picture of an idea whose time has passed, that is, an idea of the king’s absolute power.

The book’s commentary emphasizes that every detail of the picture projects a belief in power, from the scepter to the way Louis has his hand on his left hip. The painting depicts an aging man, not the youth of Dumas’s stories; Louis was born in 1638 and died in 1715. Although the idea of absolute power has gone out of style, the Louvre is tied to that idea in many ways. It was, after all, a royal residence that housed the art collection of the French royal family before it became a public museum. Beyond linking art to power, the museum functions as a powerful force itself, competing with other galleries for the rank of “best in the world” with all such a distinction means for attracting contributions to its holdings and visitors to its doors. A comment I have encountered often in reading about the Louvre is that its size actually drives people away; perhaps that’s why I find it soothing to visit my book, despite its own extraordinary, daunting size.  

One Painting at a Time

Entry 1, February 15, 2013: Inspired by two encounters with Louvre paintings last summer, one in the Louvre itself as part of a visit to Paris and the other in a book called The Louvre: All the Paintings, which I received as a present shortly after my return, I began spending half an hour or more each day in looking at an artist’s work or works in the book, and writing something about the experience. It was a way, I hoped, of maintaining contact with the precious experience of travel and also of improving my acquaintance with great art.

I recorded my first visit to the book the day after I received it; what I wrote shows that I was already worried about whether the project would go anywhere; I mention the sobering calculation that, with 3,022 pictures to look at, doing one painting per day would take more than eight years. Even though I felt that a commitment of more time than half an hour per day would likely mean I would give the project up, I decided to speed things along by doing an artist a day, rather than only one work per day. The book contains works by a little more than 1,000 artists; doing an artist a day would take a little less than three years.

During the past six months, I have missed only two days, but I don’t think I’ll make it through the book in three years. After several weeks of looking at a new artist’s work or works each day, I decided to take one day out each week to review what I had already looked at. I didn’t want to just make notes; I wanted to have easy memory access to more of the data than I was retaining. I especially wanted to be able to give more time to artists represented in the book by several paintings (da Vinci has six, for example, but I have already encountered several with more than 10, which is a lot to get through in half an hour). I added another day for review, and most recently I have reduced the days for new pictures yet again, to only four per week, so that I could start working on this blog.

I hope to add at least one post per week; my plan is to devote each post to a single painting, but, as I begin, I must admit that I already have all sorts of subjects I might like to add someday, such as identifying stylistic or thematic links among several paintings or comparing the experience of seeing a reproduction with seeing the original in the museum or even considering whether the original in the museum is truly the original work, since all the paintings in the Louvre were created for display in other settings.